Edwin Edwards, et al. Trial: 2000

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Edwin Edwards, et al. Trial: 2000

Defendants: Edwin Edwards, Stephen Edwards, Andrew Martin, Greg Tarver, Ecotry Fuller, Bobby Johnson, Cecil Brown
Crimes Charged: Extortion, mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering, interstate travel and communication in aid of racketeering, false statements, illegal wiretapping, Racketeer-influenced Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act violations, conspiracy
Chief Defense Lawyers: Edwin Edwards: Daniel Small; Stephen Edwards: James Cole; Andrew Martin: S.C. Garcia, Ill, Ryan J. Roemershauser; Greg Tarver: Mary Olive Pierson, Hillar C. Moore, l1l; Ecotry Fuller: Kenneth Craig Smith; Bobby Johnson: Patrick Fanning, Ernest Johnson; Cecil Brown: Rebecca Hudsmith
Chief Prosecutors: Eddie Jordan, Jim Letten, Michael Magner, Peter Strasser, Todd Greenberg, Fred Harper
Judge: Frank Polozola
Place: Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Dates of Trial: January 10-May 9, 2000
Verdicts: Edwin Edwards, Stephen Edwards, Andrew Martin, Cecil Brown, Bobby Johnson: guilty (Cecil Brown convicted March 21, 2001 of seven additional counts in separate extortion schemes); Greg Tarver and Ecotry Fuller: not guilty
Sentences: Edwin Edwards: 10 years in prison, $250,000 fine; Stephen Edwards: 7 years in prison, $60,000 fine; Andrew Martin: 5 years, 8 months, $50,000 fine; Cecil Brown: 5 years, 6 months, $50,000 fine; Bobby Johnson: 5 years, 4 months, $50,000 fine

SIGNIFICANCE: Former governor Edwin Edwards, who had served four terms as Louisiana governor (1972-1980, 1984-1988, and 1992-1996), was convicted of heading an extensive conspiracy during and after his last term, to extort bribes in the awarding of riverboat gambling licenses. The four-month federal trial of a popular state governor was marked by intensive local media coverage, an anonymous jury, and by the fact that the mail fraud charges that linked the crimes were, dismissed.

Governor Edwin Edwards had established a record over four decades as a successful and popular Democratic politician in Louisiana. His first three terms were marked by numerous achievements, including revision of the complex state constitution in 1974, reduction of taxes, and a vast increase in state services. Nevertheless, the fun-loving and popular politician was enmeshed in several scandals, including accusations that his wife had received a $100,000 gift while he served a term in Congress.

Edwards was accused in 1999 of having managed a scheme to extort bribes in exchange for riverboat casino licenses. Although federal prosecutors claimed that at least four casino companies paid the bribes, only two casino owners admitted to making payments.

The Louisiana Riverboat Gaming Commission, from 1992 through early 1996, consisted of a seven-member panel appointed by the governor. This commission evaluated applications for a total of 15 riverboat casino gaming licenses provided for by state law. The commission did not grant the licenses, but would issue certificates of preliminary approval. The commission was empowered to award 15 certificates. The Riverboat Gaming Division of the Louisiana State Police would grant the actual licenses, after conducting its own investigation and hearing to determine the suitability of an applicant. In March 1993, the commission awarded eight preliminary certificates, and in June 1993, the commission awarded seven more. The second round was highly competitive and received wide media attention. Fourteen of the 15 applicants that received preliminary certification were granted licenses by the State Police. The 15th applicant was at first denied by the police, but awarded after appeal.

In early 1996, after Governor Edwards completed his fourth term, the state legislature created the Louisiana Gaming Control Board, with six members appointed by the new governor. The new board had one riverboat license to grant, and it received five applications for the single license that remained to be awarded.

Bribery Conspiracy Alleged

The FBI and the Justice Department alleged that former governor Edwards and his son Stephen, through their law practice in Baton Rouge, were at the center of a criminal conspiracy to extort bribes from applicants seeking gambling licenses. Playing on their supposed influence with the original Riverboat Gaming Commission and with the new gaming board, the two received attorney's fees and other payments from both successful and unsuccessful riverboat applicants. Stephen set up a company to sell merchandise to the casino operators as a channel for some of the payoffs. Cecil Brown, Andrew Martin, and Bobby Johnson were accused of serving as contact persons with the extortion victims, soliciting bribes. All three had served as aides or staff to Edwards when he had been governor.

Eddie DeBartolo, Jr., former owner of the National Football League's San Francisco Forty-Niners, and Robert Guidry, who owned the Treasure Chest Casino in Kenner, Louisiana, both explained how they had made large payoffs to win casino licenses. Guidry stated that he paid $1.5 million over the period 1996-1997 to the Edwards ring, while DeBartolo claimed he paid $400,000. The owner of The Belle of Baton Rouge Riverboat Casino, granted a license on July 18, 1994, agreed to cooperate with federal authorities in their investigation. The casino was jointly owned by Jazz Enterprises, Incorporated, and Argosy Gaming, Inc. Mark Bradley, vice president of Jazz, along with other principals and employees of the company, worked with the FBI, helping to record conversations with Edwards and his associates. Testimony indicated that another successful applicant for a license, Players Lake Charles, Incorporated, had also made pay-offs, through a friend of the Edwards, Richard Shelter.

Several unsuccessful applicant companies were also named in the indictment against Edwards. These included the Louisiana Riverboat Gaming Corporation (LRGC), the New Orleans River Corporation (NORC), and the Gretna Belle. The government alleged that funds were extorted from all of these unsuccessful applicants.

According to the indictment, Edwards and his associates obtained $350,000 in cash and an ownership interest in the two firms, LRGC and NORC. The cash and interest were extorted in exchange for support for their license applications, although both applications failed. The cash payments tracked through bank wire transfers were in the form of consulting fees to Cecil Brown.

Furthermore, the group extorted money from Jazz enterprises, Incorporated, and from Players. Working with Richard Shelter, Stephen Edwards demanded money from Players, from the Coushatta Indian Tribe, and from a third party in relation to the Players Casino. The Edwards group also extorted money from Robert Guidry in relation to the Treasure Chest Casino. Both Shelter, as go-between, and Guidry, as victim, gave evidence against the Edwards group.

The government's case was supported by explicit testimony from De-Bartolo, Guidry, and Shelter. Although each was apparently guilty of either giving or receiving bribes, all three were granted immunity in exchange for testimony against Edwards and his conspirators.

Three Months of Testimony

Members of the state Gaming Control Board, and the former Riverboat Gaming Commission, denied that anyone had tried to influence their decisions. Even so, the government introduced testimony and wiretap evidence demonstrating that Edwin Edwards had made many telephone calls in connection with the extortion scheme. Specific acts of extortion against LRGC, NORC, Jazz Enterprises, Belle of Baton Rouge, Players Lake Charles Riverboat, Treasure Chest Riverboat Casino, and Hollywood/DeBartolo Riverboat Casino were charged. Tape-recorded conversations made it clear that Edwards's associates claimed that no license could be granted without his consent, and that payments and/or participation in the casino operations would have to be arranged if he were to support the applications.

Testimony and evidence stretched over three months in early 2000. Don Semesky, an Internal Revenue Service agent, used a chart to demonstrate that Edwards spent $872,000 more in cash than he reported as income in the period 1986-1997. Using Edwards' own testimony in an unrelated trial, Semesky claimed that Edwards spent at least $704,000 more than he could account for. His increased 1996 spending coincided with the extortion payments reported by Guidry. Part of the surplus cash was $383,500 seized from Edwards's safe deposit box. His defense claimed that amount was a legitimate payment from DeBartolo. Prosecutors and defense attorneys disputed whether the $400,000 payment, which DeBartolo had reported to the IRS, could be regarded as legitimate or not.

The defense attorneys argued that the federal government used its power to construct a case built on wiretaps and testimony from individuals who pleabargained in exchange for their testimony. Bugged offices, paid expert witnesses, testimony from people who admittedly broke the law, and FBI tails on suspects added up to a government conspiracy, the defense charged. Tape recordings were edited and played out of context to construct a plot for the jury, and a known criminal made at least one set of tapes. According to the defense, the payments from Richard Shelter to Stephen Edwards were merely legitimate repayments on an investment in a failed pizza venture. Shelter had ledgers that included evidence of other transactions, some apparently illegal, and the defense charged that Shelter testified for the government in exchange for immunity.

Jury deliberations stretched over several weeks, and the judge dismissed one juror for smuggling notes and documents into the deliberation room. Ultimately, however, the jury appeared convinced by the testimony of Eddie DeBartolo and Robert Guidry, who both testified that Edwards extorted money from them, and from Richard Shelter who claimed he funneled over $500,000 to the Edwards group from the Lake Charles Players Casino. Five of the seven accused were found guilty on May 9, 2000. Judge Polozola handed down sentences on January 8, 2001. Former governor Edwards was visibly shocked when the judge sentenced him to 10 years plus a $250,000 fine. His son Stephen received the second most severe sentence: seven years and a $60,000 fine.

Although Judge Polozola originally intended for the convicted conspirators to begin serving their sentences immediately, another judge granted Edwards and the others freedom while their appeals were pending. Edwards claimed 21 grounds for appeal, including the fact that the mail fraud charges that linked all of the convictions were themselves dismissed. While the appeals were pending, Brown and Edwards were accused in a separate corruption case for having arranged a favorable settlement for Cascade Insurance Company, which had been declared insolvent, in exchange for payoffs.

As of mid-2001, the appeals of the convictions in the casino bribery case were still pending.

Rodney Carlisle

Suggestions for Further Reading

Bridges, Tyler. Bad Bet on the Bayou: The Rise of Gambling in Louisiana and the Fall of Governor Edwin Edwards. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2001.

Brotherton, John. A Fistful of Kings. Shear's Group, 2000.